Friday, June 10, 2005

Jazz in L.A. - "not quite bleak" (but almost)

Or so says Lynell George of the L.A. Times, who documents the highs and lows of the jazz club scene in southern California.

June 9, 2005
Off the radar but still flying
L.A.’s jazz scene is as sprawling — and as tenacious — as the region itself.
By Lynell George, Times Staff Writer

It's a typical early-in-the-run night at the Jazz Bakery — not quite bleak, but possibly tipped there.

Nights like this make Ruth Price, the proprietor of the Culver City venue, more than a touch nervous. At the moment, eyes heavenward, she's scanning the seating plan — a clear plexiglass sheet situated above the ticket booth that patrons scan to handpick their seats. As each ticket is purchased, Price, or one of her staffers, X's out a spot, allowing a visitor a preview of how full (or not) the evening might be.

More than a decade into this, the tension of worrying over the house still puts Price on edge.

The first set is supposed to start at 8 p.m., but there aren't many grease-penciled Xs. Price waits as long as she can, given there's the second set to think about. At 8:15-ish, the lobby lights start flashing, indicating that the doors to the performance space will be opening shortly. Businessmen with loosened ties catch the last bit of light outdoors and stub out their cigarettes. A group of women in broomstick skirts and long exotic earrings, clustered in the high-ceilinged cafe, toss out their pie plates and then take their seats inside. The green plastic patio chairs are set up in straight rows like pews. In this simple, bare-bones arrangement, the room looks even emptier than the seating grid.

By the time the lights have dimmed and Price has given her trademark peppy intro, singer Andy Bey squints out into the crowd. He makes a visor of his left hand, cupping it above his brow and peers out into the shadows: "So nice having a packed house," he laughs into his microphone. "Oh, but they're on their way." Bey smiles a knowing smile and then, seating himself at the piano, everything falls away. He promptly saunters into "Paper Moon"; next, an otherworldly version of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Bey continues to toss out an unusual set of tunes — like laying out a surprising playing-hand. Then he starts in on some not so unusual ones: Kurt Weill's "Speak Low" and an achingly out-of-time version of "Midnight Sun." He pulls something out of the center of his being, in a voice that is all ache in the middle but only slightly frayed at the edges — he sings these with conviction and controlled force — as if it were an SRO crowd, as if he were alone.

When it comes to jazz in this city, most die-hard fans know this abstract truth: There is the "jazz romance" — the packed, hushed rooms, the heady rush of brilliance; and there is the "jazz reality" — back-to-back sets played by journeymen and masters in odd or even incongruous spaces. And with any luck, on any given night here in Southern California, you can find something that falls somewhere neatly in between.

You just have to know where to look — or that you should even try.

Contrary to popular grousing, there is jazz to be had in Los Angeles — and we're not just talking about high-profile clubs such as the Jazz Bakery or this weekend's Playboy Jazz Festival. The experience may come wrapped in a way we're not accustomed to, or it might take some seeking.

The bad rap about L.A., from performers to listeners, is this: "People don't come out." Or, "It's too over their heads." But the jazz issue is deeper and more complex: It's an issue of sprawl, of competing distractions.

"It's a matter of infrastructure," says Ken Moore, who, for a hot minute in 2000-01, ran Howling Monk Coffee Bar in Inglewood. Some nights 100 people or more would crowd into his modest space, which offered pastry, coffee and tunes. They'd drive in from the San Gabriel Valley or just bump into the music as they were walking down the street. "It was like a big void we were filling. We didn't serve alcohol. And the artists really enjoyed it because people were there for the music. There wasn't anything ulterior to it," says Moore, who kept doing it until he simply ran out of money. "What was I gonna do? Have a 10-tea minimum?"

His dilemma raises the question: What do we think about when we think about jazz?

Experiencing jazz comes ready-fitted with clichés that are hard to shake: that it happens in dark (perhaps basement) rooms; that there is a two-drink minimum; that, to be authentic, the music has to be obtuse.

But the region is full of surprises and, as a rule, breaks with convention. The music may not happen one flight down as it does in Chicago or New York. Here it might transpire at a musty old Elks Lodge or in the back of a sandwich shop.

But that is part of the appeal.

There are rooms where the big names sail into town and play five-night stands. The Bakery is one, Hollywood's Catalina Bar & Grill the other. Between those two rooms — as different as day and night — L.A. has seen jazz's royalty: Elvin Jones, Carmen McRae, Max Roach, Buddy Collette, Jimmy Scott, Kenny Burrell, Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie.

And while UCLA Live and the Walt Disney Concert Hall have been hosting jazz, what people don't often know about is what happens in the pockets on any given night in some hidden corner of the Southland.

The working musician's life means hotel gigs at the Biltmore downtown and the Westin and the Crowne Plaza at the Los Angeles airport, playing in bars or echo-y lobbies. There, too, is a collection of rooms in the San Fernando Valley and Glendale and Pasadena; or the music that happens at the new 5th Street Dick's in Leimert Park and across the street at the World Stage. There's jazz at Steamers in Fullerton or the LACMA courtyard Friday nights or the speak-easy elegance of the Vic in Santa Monica.

For those who prefer their music outside of the box, there's the "line space line," the new and improvised music series at Selah Artistic Giving Center in downtown L.A., as well as a series that drummer Alex Cline has been booking for years, the Open Gate Theater, which stages shows at Eagle Rock's Center for the Arts the first Sunday of the month.

Just about anywhere you can think of, there's someone sweating out his soul, possibly playing for nothing but giving his all. Jazz isn't dead. But when it's not shape-changing, it's in a stealth mode.

There will always be the crony, some long-timer at the end of the bar, who, without prompting, wants to roll out those glory years stories — the Central Avenue scene, West Coast cool — just to make you jealous about all the historic rooms and sounds that could simply be happened upon ... once upon a time.

And, yes, the landscape has changed. But that doesn't take into account what still happens every night here.

Jazz violinist Jeff Gauthier has usurped the dance floor of a Culver City Salvadoran restaurant, Club Tropical, on Thursday nights to host a series he's dubbed CryptoNight — an extension of his label Cryptogramophone, which pays homage to creative improvised music in L.A. and beyond. "They aren't playing standards," Gauthier says. "They won't be booked at the Bakery or Catalina or Steamers. But these are artists who have taken their cues from people who have been doing innovative music here for decades — Bobby Bradford, Vinny Golia."

Just after 8 p.m. on a recent Thursday, pianist Thollem McDonas and drummer Rick Rivera sit beneath the dance floor's disco balls. The audience — art school types in rectangle glasses, musicians in shorts and flip-flops — are seated on short stools that ring the stage, while a family of four works through a plate of pupusas. Another family peeks in, the son transfixed by the bright sounds — all angles and odd meters.

Tonight's attendance is sparse. But restaurant owner Carlos Rodriguez knows the ups and downs of this; he hosts music just about every night, including another jazz night on Mondays and a Brazilian choro ensemble on Wednesdays. He's become aware of the city's odd ebbs and flows, musicians and their followings: "When people like Nels and Alex Cline come here, the line is out the door."

Across town a few nights later, McCoy Tyner has landed back in L.A. for another week of shows at the Catalina Bar & Grill. Catalina is the city's bid for the classic example of the jazz club experience. And Tyner is one of the classic examples of straight-ahead jazz, once part of what was arguably one of the most famous ensembles in jazz history, the John Coltrane Quartet. Midweek, mid-run, even on his second pass through in three months, the room is lively, though just about half full.

As Tyner makes his way between the blush-colored tabletops, one woman murmurs, "Ah, déjà vu all over again."

His gait is a bit unsteady, but his bearing is elegant. He strolls by slowly, as if the evening has no end or limits. He seats himself on the piano bench. His drummer, Eric Gravatt, has already taken off his jacket and draped it on the joint where one of his cymbals hangs, vertically like a gong — to prepare for what is to come.

Tyner raises his hands, then digs in. And in those hands one can hear the history of jazz — from ragtime to stride to bebop and beyond.

First round, second round. First set, second set. Waiters sailing in like clockwork, the check arriving just as the musicians settle in for the encore: There is something soothing and ritualistic about the club: People return for the comforts of those rhythms while catching a glimpse of jazz history passing by.

Read the rest of the article online at the LA Times


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